Will concerns over airport radiation help efforts to rein in patient dose?

August 26, 2010

It may turn out to be one of those “who would ever have thought that would happen?” kind of things. But in the world of U.S. politics, it might be exactly what’s needed.

It may turn out to be one of those “who would ever have thought that would happen?” kind of things. But in the world of U.S. politics, it might be exactly what’s needed.

Earlier this month two senators introduced the Consistency, Accuracy, Responsibility, and Excellence in Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy Act of 2010, raising hopes that efforts by the imaging community to rein in patient radiation exposure might soon start paying dividends. Sens. Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) wrote the legislation to guarantee that staff who perform medical imaging and radiation therapy are appropriately qualified by establishing standards for these personnel. It makes sense. Who wants unqualified personnel performing procedures involving ionizing radiation?

But Capitol Hill being what it is-with a Tea Party here and a corruption trial there-sense doesn’t usually come into play. It’s a good thing that this bill, which promises to do much for radiology as well as radiation oncology, has an ace in the hole: the efforts of three U.S. senators who have joined the debate over x-ray safety-not in hospitals and clinics but in airports.

Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Richard Burr (R-NC) are focusing on whole-body airport scanners. They have asked federal officials to review scanner health effects on travelers and airport and airline personnel.

Some in the imaging community may question why, when the U.S. has yet to pass a national medical imaging standard regarding radiation exposure, legislators would look at low-dose body scanners in airports. It is ironic but politically understandable and potentially helpful in gaining the momentum needed to improve the safety of countless Americans.

In an Aug. 5 letter to Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, and John S. Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the senators note public concerns about the safety of the scanners and asked to be provided all government-commissioned evaluations of the health effects of radiation emitted by this technology.

“To address the continuing concerns surrounding the use of these machines, we request that you have the (Homeland Security) department’s chief medical officer, working with independent experts, conduct a review of the health effects of their use for travelers, TSA employees, and airport and airline personnel,” they said.

The letter comes as the TSA is moving ahead with purchases of backscatter and millimeter wave scanners for installation in the nation’s airports. According to a July 26 report in The New York Times, the TSA had purchased 250 of the backscatter x-ray units and was on track to have both the x-ray and an alternative millimeter wave scan technology installed at 2200 checkpoints in 450 commercial airports in the U.S. within two years.

“The issue of radiation associated with the backscatter x-ray (advanced imaging technology) machines has not been adequately addressed by TSA,” the letter said. It called the article in The New York Times “only the most recent in a number of media reports on concerns over the radiation emitted by backscatter x-ray (advanced imaging technology) machines.”

And that may be the key.

While many people have developed cancer, many more travel America’s skies. The lifetime threat of cancer is trumped by the imminent threat posed by security scanners, which may be what catalyzes political action on radiation safety.

Linkages between Senate actions aimed at improving radiation safety in airports and in medical practice are ready for the making. The political base for airport security alone numbers in the millions of Americans. If these efforts can find common ground, everyone in this country will benefit.